Robert Downey Jr stars as Dolittle, in a film that arrives in the UK this weekend – and here’s our review.

Doctor Dolittle has had a mixed time of it on the big screen. While the contemporary Eddie Murphy-starring comedy version from 1998 is hardly a modern classic, it’s still head and shoulders above the dreary Rex Harrison musical and also, we take no pleasure in reporting, the latest incarnation, starring Robert Downey Jr as the doctor who talks to animals.

Ostensibly skewing closer to Hugh Lofting’s stories than the last Hollywood version, Dolittle begins with the good doctor shacked up in his animal sanctuary, having shut out all human connections in favour of living with animals he has rescued. However, a rude interjection from youngsters Stubbins (Henry Collett) and Lady Rose (Carmel Laniando) leads him and his menagerie into a whirlwind voyage to find a lost island and recover a cure for the mysterious malady that plagues the Queen of England.

Having grown up listening to the BBC Radio adaptations of Lofting’s stories, I personally remember taking longer than most to warm to the 1998 film when I was a kid, but disliking the more faithful 1967 version too. I’ve been looking forward to the new version despite the negative hype surrounding its production, but it’s clear just from watching it that this would-be franchise-starter landed a considerable distance away from where the film that was intended.

We won’t get into the behind-the-scenes air crash investigation in this review, but to put it bluntly, Dolittle is exactly the sort of rudderless star vehicle you can imagine Johnny Depp being in after his big Pirates Of The Caribbean sequel payday a few years ago. Having built a similar blockbuster profile after 10 years in the Marvel cinematic universe, star and executive producer Downey gamely steps into the breach that never needed re-filling.

We all know Downey is a tremendous actor, but his performance, like so much of the film around it, suffers from a breakdown of common-sense whimsy control. Much will be made of his slightly shaky Welsh accent, but that feels like just one mark of him trying to distinguish this character from his Sherlock Holmes, another prodigy of literary origins. The result is painfully affected, making it impossible to get invested in either him or the meandering plot.

For much of the running time, the film stumbles wackily after his deranged example. The voice casting of the animal characters is all over the place, with Emma Thompson, Tom Holland, and Ralph Fiennes’ considered performances clashing madly with the more forced comic riffing by Rami Malek, John Cena, Kumail Nanjiani, Octavia Spencer, and Craig Robinson.

It’s hard to say anyone fits the tone, but then the film gives off all the signs of its makers never having communicated with each other during production. No one is phoning it in here, but there’s the sense that certain things weren’t fixable in post-production. All development problems aside, this is the kind of expensive folly that only gets made accidentally nowadays.

Making in-person appearances, Antonio Banderas, Jim Broadbent, and a mostly sedentary Jessie Buckley feel similarly marooned by the errant pacing, but if nothing else, Dolittle is a further testament to the indestructible screen presence of Michael Sheen. He’s been brilliant in worse films than this too, but every time he turns up as Dolittle’s hissable nemesis Dr Müdfly, you ache for the better film that has him in the lead role instead of Downey. All the same, Sheen’s aptitude for playing shameless baddies is a very welcome diversion here. The film itself isn’t much more than a diversion, although there’s some entertainment value in its most surreal reaches.

Only a few weeks after it was released in the United States, the third act is already infamous for a rejig of the “thorn in the lion’s paw” fable that contrives to do a very different medical procedure on a very different part of a very different beast. Throughout its running time, Dolittle is often just as convoluted as this sequence, but rarely as fascinating. Ranging from the episodic to the incomprehensible, the film seems to continually imply that zaniness will continue until morale improves.

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